How to Resolve Disputes So Everyone Wins

It's a special skill to be able to terminate disputes amicably. In this week's column, Naomi Karten offers suggestions for how to resolve disputes so that none of the parties suffers from black eyes or bruised egos.

Think about some of the disputes you've been involved in: quarrels with your team-mates over techniques, disagreements with managers about policies, arguments with customers about requirements and deadlines. Next time you find yourself embroiled in a divisive difference of opinion, consider these suggestions.

Listen and Do Not Interrupt
If you're determined to turn a disagreement into a battle, simply interrupt constantly while the other person is speaking. Doing this is an easy trap to fall into, especially if it's a dispute with a customer or teammate you've already had problems with. But, if you truly want to resolve the matter, let the other person state her case. Admittedly, this is teeth-grittingly difficult if the other person spouts outrageous claims about you, your work, or people you care about. Still, by listening carefully, you'll gain a much better sense of the other person's concerns, which are as real, valid, and important to the other person as your concerns are to you. Even if you don't find yourself agreeing, you'll gain insight that will help you make a reasoned and reasonable case.

Calmly State the Facts
Whenever it's your turn to speak, resist the temptation to become a master intimidator, like the developer who barked orders, thinking that would induce his customers to pay attention rather than tune him out altogether. Instead of mocking or criticizing the other person, explain your own perspective. Explanations are important: Disputes often arise because of an innocent misunderstanding that can be easily rectified. If you can determine that this is the case, you may discover you're both on the same side of the issue.

Monitor Your Nonverbal Behavior
Be especially careful about your tone of voice and body language as you present your points; speaking in a blaming tone or with blaming gestures will do more to make the other person resist your ideas than the facts of your situation. Conversely, speaking in a calm, concise, and even-tempered manner will make the other person more prone to listen to you.

Let the Other Person Save Face
Failure to do this is one of the most common mistakes people make in the heat of an argument. Although the urge to belittle others can be strong when you're eager to get your way, people are more likely to accept your viewpoint if you don't back them into a corner. Make it easy for them concede without being embarrassed or humiliated. The longer the dispute has been in progress, the easier you have to make it.

Try to Empathize with the Other Person's Ideas
This is important even if (or especially if) you strongly disagree with the other person's ideas. Rare is the situation in which you can't find merit in the other person's views-some small thing that you can view in positive terms even if you disagree with all the rest. If you can avoid being rigidly one-sided, you're more likely to resolve the disagreement to your mutual satisfaction; that, after all, is the ultimate objective.

Pretend You're the Other Person
Imagine yourself as the other person and make a case for the other person's perspective. This is really difficult; after all, you're arguing against your own interests. But, don't be surprised if, in the process, you actually begin to see the other person's perspective in ways you hadn't before. With an increased awareness of that perspective, you may see a new way of presenting your ideas that take that perspective into account.

Seek a Mutually Beneficial Solution
Even if you feel adamantly that your position is the only acceptable one, look for ways that the other person can benefit. If you're determined to persist until you win, you may succeed, but you'll pay a price as you build a reputation as someone who's difficult to deal with. After all, what does it say about you if the only way you can resolve a dispute in your favor is by bludgeoning the other person into submission?

Dare to Try Some New Behaviors
If you have tended to react to disagreements loudly or belligerently, dare to give the above suggestions a try. The next time someone provokes you, take a deep breath, pause, and make a commitment to yourself to remain cool. Then use these suggestions and use them some more until they become second nature. If you treat people in a respectful, let's-figure-this-out-together manner-even when you disagree with them-you'll save wear and tear on yourself and your relationships. In the process, you may find your differences aren't so major after all.

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